Ornette Coleman

Ornette, in case you hadn’t heard already, tossed out the chord changes and chose to improvise purely on the feelings of the piece being played, thus becoming a figurehead of Free Jazz. With nothing but a cheap alto sax and diligence, Coleman weathered all kinds of praise and dismissal, yet he stuck to his guns. The amount of reactive shit he put up with would have sent most people into hiding, but he was playing the truest way he knew how. It wasn’t totally free, at least not at first, because he held on to melody and swing like an umbrella in a rainstorm. Rather than deconstruct jazz with subversive chaos, he simply wanted to expand the options for soloists - himself, his right hand partner Don Cherry, and his bandmates. Part (or all?) of Coleman’s praxis involves his concept of Harmolodics, which I’ve heard explained in mutually exclusive ways before, and thus which I have no intention of discussing here. Let’s just say that there was a named method to his supposed madness. Along with the focus in improvisation, Coleman mostly wrote his own material, and he was a prolific composer of catchy melodies.

His alto sax sound is an acquired taste, although this depends on the listener’s previous experiences. Dry, fluctuating in pitch, and nearly vocal, his horn will bore out the ear canals of the unsuspecting.

His influence and inspiration, I would argue, are at least as valuable as his recordings, which in my opinion range from great to garbage over the course of his career. Sometimes his small band records honed jazz to fine interactive points; sometimes his other projects took silly chances, like when he put his ten year old son in the drum chair, or come off stiff, like the beat fusion of Dancing In Your Head. His music can be addictive and/or infuriating. Ornette even took up trumpet and violin (i.e., played them like a child) just to keep from getting too, er, accomplished an instrumentalist, I guess. Yet all of this pointed a way and cleared out terrain for others to explore. I don’t know how different 1960s jazz would have been without him, but he certainly gave it a jolt. Charlatan? At times, I think his nerve exceeded his abilities, yet the long haul brought him a special alto technique, and there’s no questioning his dedication and open-mindedness, nor the endorsements from accepted giants, so it’s a moot point.

The Shape of Jazz to Come
May 1959 / Atlantic

The title proved prophetic in that the music is hardly shocking decades later, although it stirred the reactive pot in its day. The sax liberties that Ornette takes on this record have been taken for granted ever since. This was the first recording (he had led two previous for Contemporary) where Ornette was able to use his full working band. Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet is inseparable from Ornette’s alto in this period. Cherry’s ideas are just a step beyond his technique, but his inventions outweigh his inconsistencies, and he and Ornette sound great when playing in unison. Bassist Charlie Haden fills the support role in the absence of piano. Drummer Billy Higgins swings traditionally and punches needed accents into Haden’s static walking basslines.

The six written themes are just as much fun as the solos, really. “Chronology” and “Congeniality” both sound like anxious cousins of bop, with the latter detouring into a slower, harmonized repose. “Lonely Woman” is a ballad of sorts, although the arrangement, with horns wavering above double-time drums and drawling bass, is hardly in the mold of any ballad heard before. (It moves forward and stays in place at the same time, creating a vertigo essential to the song’s effect.) “Peace” implies uncertainty before peace, with perfect teamwork from Coleman and Cherry. “Focus on Sanity” and “Eventually” require more listens to digest, due to the extended structure of the former and the breakneck delivery of the latter - they almost lose the handle on the end of “Eventually”.

Without chord changes, Ornette is free to explore rhythm as much as melody, and his solos are abundant with rhythmic motifs and permutations. The melodic content is clear, if loosely played. It isn’t difficult music to follow; the listener simply has to erase the ingrained expectation of chord roadmaps and trust Coleman and Co. to know where they’re going. Which they generally do, and though these performances were “out there” for 1959, they aren’t very indulgent and don’t waste time. Motivic development informs both the alto and trumpet solos, and listen to how one grabs the baton from the other in “Eventually”. With personalized horn work and down home swing, the group delivers on Coleman’s hypothesis that this sort of thing could work, and much joy emanates in the process.

Change of the Century
Oct. 1959 / Atlantic

Two of Ornette’s best compositions are here. “Ramblin” blends the blues, country, and bop into a catchy tune, and even David Sanborn played it on one of his 1990s albums (and made a good funky job of it, too). Then there’s “Una Muy Bonita”, built on Haden’s bass line and another fine horn melody. Is this tune panethnic, or South American, or ladled from Ozark waters? Whatever, it’s not stamped Made in Manhattan, and it wasn’t long before other musicians covered it, either. While Coleman’s albums are usually valued for their improvisational content, one can also just enjoy the infectious written parts, especially with these two songs.

The remaining five tracks aren’t as contagious but do keep the group on a tightrope. “Bird Food” and “Forerunner” continue to pay a debt to bebop, in feel if not the letter of the law. Sensing the distance between Ornette’s execution and the techniques of bop, one might reach two conclusions: that Ornette admires the jazz which came before him, even if he doesn’t follow its rules, and that his technique is just fine for what he wants to do, which is to emote without harmonic constriction. “Free” is a figure of slapback notes that hints at Coltrane’s “Mr. PC”, but in a major key. The rhythm drops out for the switch between alto and trumpet solos; later in the piece, Coleman and Cherry get into snappy exchanges as Higgins directs traffic. The title track is a freebop blitzkrieg. “Face of the Bass” allots some time to Haden, and his non-demonstrative soloing plays the yin to Ornette’s outgoing yang.

I used to rate Change of the Century slightly higher than Shape of Jazz, but it’s a draw - Change has wider range, Shape has more consistency. Both are prime tickets to Coleman’s Atlantic period.

This Is Our Music
July - Aug 1960 / Atlantic

Uneven, yet still underrated, with increasingly bold playing from Mr. OC. In addition to warped bop lines, Ornette fires off horn-cracking frenzies, trying to break through an undefined barrier. His developing language has no grammar yet, and at times it sounds like childish (or amateurish) frustration. Cherry is left half a lap behind; his ideas are small-time against Ornette’s, and his chops are erratic, especially in the heads. In fact, the best bits from Cherry on this record are the phrases he steals from Ornette’s solos.

New drummer Ed Blackwell brings a more expansive concept than the departing Higgins. His accents reverse the usual top-of-the-beat emphasis of standard jazz drumming. He can swing by any definition, and he also switches from the ride cymbal to marching patterns on the toms (clues to his N’awlins background). Blackwell carries Higgins’ freebop groundwork a step further, yet the nonstop swing is still sort of a straightjacket on the quartet.

The material ranges from a subverted version of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” to the burning “Kaleidoscope” (a repository of Ornette’s new furies) to the curvaceous “Humpty Dumpty”. “Blues Connotation” is a classic sounding blues-bop head that shaves the end off the 12-bar form. Don’t bother worrying about this during the solo, as Coleman blows appropriate structural cues as he feels them. “Poise” swings hard and is more abstract. “Folk Tale” has thematic data overload (jittery fanfare, street parade, bop chromatics) and also an exemplary Ornette solo that moves from slurred sprints to songlike melodies.

The real treasure of the album is “Beauty is a Rare Thing”, which ditches the head/solo routine in favor of a grander structure. Ornette starts with a long reverie over arco bass and soft tom rolls; little chirps from Cherry and controlled squeals from Ornette signal the next section, for dixie-space trumpet and abstract bass and drum sounds. The improvisation is done without any metrical considerations, and it’s refreshing to hear Haden and Blackwell just being colorists under Cherry’s restrained playing. The re-emergence of the original alto theme (now played in harmony by the two horns, and abridged) re-aligns the quartet and ends the piece at seven minutes. The implications of this improvised tone poem are dazzling - the continuums of beat and solo sequence are gone, and the whole piece lies on a backdrop of silence, where every gesture of the players is naked. Apart from a preplanned structure (detectable after the first listen), and Ornette’s written melody, it’s truly free jazz, and a revelation. “Beauty” is more significant, I would say, than the whole of the upcoming Free Jazz, which sounds less dynamic in comparison. For this track, and the bright moments in the other six, This Is Our Music is pretty essential.

Free Jazz
Dec. 1960 / Atlantic

Subtitled A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet. Horns: Coleman, Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, and Eric Dolphy; basses: Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden; drums: Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. For thirty-seven minutes, here’s what happens: a cacophonic group theme is played at the start and in between the solos, a solid swing rhythm is maintained nonstop by Blackwell and Haden, contrary rhythms come from the other bass/drum team, and the horn solos are all subject to interjections and commentary from the other players. The basses and drums take their solos together, then comes a final dissonant group statement and one of the most controversial jazz albums is over. “A teeming mosaic of interwoven, conversational threads” might claim your average review, but there aren’t a lot of dynamics present and many potentials go ignored. The problem is that eight people is just over the line where true listening and interplay can occur, and for every little moment of serendipity (like a choice phrase getting passed around by the horns on the fly), there are acres of roughage. It’s cluttered and dense to a fault. The best part is the twin bass solo, with LaFaro playing quick, high register melodies to Haden’s locked ostinatos, as little cymbal dots ping in the background. The reason it’s the best part is because two people can respond to each other better than eight.

Let’s not forget that Eric (on bass clarinet here) was arriving at some of the same musical conclusions as Ornette at this time, although he took a more traditional training route. Dolphy’s work on this album occasionally leaves everyone else in the shade. Ornette sounds forced in comparison. Hubbard does okay, considering that he is out of his element. These two interlopers break up the usual tag-teamwork of Coleman and Cherry, and the density of all the instruments playing at once becomes a numbing noise. But then, this was 1960, and not even Ornette was yet hip to the dramatic possibilities available to a free-improvising unit.

Album title aside, this isn’t the official rallying flag for what Ornette was about. It’s just a big “what if” album. In fact, if it had never been recorded, I contend that Ornette’s influence would have been exactly the same, and there are several titles that ought to be digested before the newcomer even considers this one. Some versions of the album contain the bonus track “First Take”, which is from the same session and similar to the original master take but half as long. Hindsight: let “First Take” be the first half of the LP, then break into single quartets playing smaller pieces for the flipside. Then you’d have some contrast and a more interesting album, in my view.

Jan. 1961 / Atlantic

This is a fairly adventurous album, where the group stretches out for up to sixteen minutes on four pieces, of which only the drum feature “T. & T.” is relatively short. (The acronymic song titles stand for phrases by Freud or Coleman.) With Charlie Haden off to detoxify, Scott LaFaro takes over the bass without disrupting the established group sound, even impersonating Haden with a low-register ostinato in one track. He otherwise displays his formidable technique in all ranges of the instrument, counterpointing the horns and locking in with Blackwell’s polyrhythms. Coleman delivers one of his best solos in “R.P.D.D.”, an extended exploration of small motifs that get twisted in all directions; the last iteration of each leads to the next motif to be processed. It’s thematic improvisation at its most immediate. Where Sonny Rollins would develop and recall themes in a more expositional way (like a magician at the end of his show, producing a rabbit that disappeared in the first act), Ornette juggles spontaneous ideas as they appear, then moves on to the next thirty-second inspiration. The sequential progression of this solo couldn’t have happened if “R.P.D.D.” was a standard chord-change tune.

The rest of the album is kind of scattershot, although Blackwell keeps most of it interesting. Don Cherry makes a fine statement in “W.R.U.”, where he focuses on succinct ideas. Ornette doesn’t always sustain himself as in the one solo mentioned above. LaFaro is better heard with Bill Evans, yet he works with Ornette’s concepts as few bassists could at the time. The 2004 reissue of this album by Rhino adds the bonus track “Proof Readers” from the same session, a slightly rowdy piece with a fine Ornette solo. The remastered sound is a step above the presentation in the 1993 complete Atlantic boxset.

Ornette on Tenor
Mar. 1961 / Atlantic

Ornette handles the broader instrument very well. Some critics describe his tenor sound as gutbucket, but that’s what happens when you transpose his customary alto cries to a darker timbre. Strangely enough, Coleman’s tenor is easier on this listener’s ears than his abrasive alto. The seductive phrasing with which he begins his “Ecars” solo is one example, and the warm tones of “Eos” another. He also gets a little riled in “Ecars” and in the fierce soundwaves of “Cross Breeding”. Coleman was already familiar with the tenor sax from his early playing days, so mechanics are no apparent obstacle. That’s not to say he’s now Rollins or Webster. He’s still very much Ornette Coleman, and a blindfold test would fool no one.

LaFaro had moved on, so new bassist Jimmy Garrison comes aboard for this record. His thick, plunky sound goes well with the music, he swings surely, and I love the bass break in “Enfant”. Don Cherry is in decent form, yet there is the sense that he’s said all he needs to say in OC’s company at this point. Of the performances, “Cross Breeding” stands out, and Ornette’s solo makes a case for him sticking with tenor for a while longer. On “Mapa”, the players drift in and out of common pulse, playing at rhythmic odds with each other, a mild yet welcome anarchy. Though not a must-own, Ornette on Tenor obviously sounds different than the surrounding records and has some very worthwhile moments.

Art of the Improvisers
May 1959 - Mar 1961 / Atlantic

Released in 1970, this is a smorgasbord of outtakes from the above sessions. Extremes run from the crazy modulations of “The Fifth of Beethoven” to the tender “Just for You” from the Shape session. The space transmission “Moon Inhabitants” has Coleman and Cherry trading staccato readouts over an insistent Blackwell hi-hat and galactic Haden burps. “The Legend of Bebop” isn’t quite legendary, but its melody might ring subliminal bells for the bop-bred. “The Circle with the Hole in the Middle” cuts like a razor and would have fit well within the Change of the Century record from which it dates.

From the Ornette! session comes “The Alchemy of Scott LaFaro”, in which Scotty takes no solo, though he does pluck a neat bass line. The real highlights of “Alchemy” are the sax acrobatics of Ornette in his first solo (really utilizing the ‘special effects’ for the first time), and the unaccompanied alto/trumpet duet near the end, where the Coleman-Cherry chemistry is in full flower. “Harlem’s Manhattan” is a good swinger from the Tenor session.

Art of the Improvisers has little if any subpar music, and it’s a good place to sample the differences between the bassists and drummers Coleman used during his Atlantic tenure, but the regular albums should come first.

May 1959 - Jan 1961 / Atlantic

Another assembly of outtakes, released in 1971. Twins almost follows my suggestion of pairing the 17-minute “First Take” from the Free Jazz sessions with single-quartet pieces, although what I wished for Free Jazz was the single/double quartet dichotomy with the same players. Nevertheless, here is the slimmer slice of “Free Jazz”, similar in its din and squall to the master. From the LaFaro sessions comes the loose-tempo jam “Check Up”, while the beboppish “Monk and the Nun” dates from the Shape session. One of Don Cherry’s best solos with Ornette can be heard in “Little Symphony”, a theme of cheeky pomp. What makes the trumpet solo so special is how inside/outside it is simultaneously, its choice motifs, and how quickly and appropriately Cherry responds to a change in Haden’s bass support. This is what Ornette was after in his free jazz premise, and his cohorts deliver. “Joy of a Toy” is notable mostly for its happy/sad/happy theme, a written encapsulation of Ornette’s innocence as an improviser.

Twins: flashes of essence. Patchy, but every barrel-scraper is.

Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
May 1959-Dec 1960

A six-disc box from 1993 that presents, in chronological session order, all of the material on the Atlantic albums above, along with seven tracks that appeared on the Japan-only To Whom Who Keeps a Record (rel.1975), and a handful of previously-unreleased goodies. Also, at the end of the set, are two tracks from the Jazz Abstractions album with Coleman guesting on arrangements by third-streamer Gunther Schuller. The booklet contains an essay from critic Robert Palmer and a string of quotes from various jazz artists about Ornette’s impact, and also some quotes from Mr. Coleman himself.

Scattered throughout Disc 3 is the majority of the To Whom Who Keeps A Record material, recorded in July 1960 when Ed Blackwell had just come aboard. As with Improvisers and Twins, these aren’t crummy discards; rather, they demonstrate the surplus of good music Ornette’s group was generating, as in the ballad “Some Other”. A couple of the other previously unreleased tracks are just alternate takes of album masters with different song titles. (“Revolving Doors” = “All”, etc.) The fresh discovery “I Heard It Over the Radio” again illustrates the fertility of Ornette’s composing during this period.

The Jazz Abstractions tracks feature Coleman with a string quartet and some big jazz names (Jim Hall, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy). “Abstraction” is a short chamber-improv, while the Schuller rearrangement of Monk’s “Criss Cross” almost answers the perennial question, “what would Coleman and/or Dolphy have sounded like had they played with Monk?” The answer is not Charlie Rouse. Anyway, Gunther Schuller matches his contemporary classical know-how with an enthusiasm for modern jazz, and if this is what Third Stream music was about, well, it wasn’t all bad. I find it interesting that some of these highbrow classical VIPs were attracted to the Monks and Dolphys of the jazz world. Same language, different dialects?

This boxset was a total no-brainer at the time of its release - Compleat Ornette Atlantic? Essential! However, the sound quality has begun to show its age, especially in comparison to the individual remasters that have started appearing in the new century. So it’s an expensive reference item at best.

At The Golden Circle Vols. 1 and 2
Dec. 1965 / Blue Note RVGs

These two trio volumes with bassist David Izenson and drummer Charles Moffett are a high water mark for Coleman. By this time, his alto technique had been honed into a commanding freebop style, and he gets plenty of room to stretch out on these club performances with what is arguably his most stimulating rhythm section. Izenson defines avant-garde bass, sawing dangerous ideas with a bow as often as he plucks walking lines and disjointed double-stop figures. Unafraid to float away from pulse, or pocket it for long stretches, Izenson balances the virtues of support and contrast. Moffett maintains the Blackwell tradition of tight swing and cymbal-less martial beats. The trio doesn’t make a radical departure from the operations of Coleman’s Atlantic groups, yet the music is more confident in its freedom than any Ornette had yet recorded.

Both discs present very similar menus of music. The quick bpm’s of “The Riddle” and “Faces and Places” showcase Ornette’s strengthened abilities. He rips into the master take of “The Riddle” with urgency. As in the earlier “R.P.D.D.”, Ornette issues lots of brief motifs that are either modulated into arbitrary conclusions or morphed into new cells. There are enough unexpected notes to suggest that Coleman embraces hazard as a way of spurring himself onward. At medium tempos (“Antiques”, or “Dee Dee”) he falls into a singsong primitivism, lacing simple phrases around the drums. Moffett is all over the place in “Doughnuts”, a Volume 1 bonus track that turns out to be one of the best of the engagement. The drummer swings, marches, and rolls his way through the piece, dominating the action. The sprawling alternate take of “Antiques” moves rhythmic and melodic blocks around in a jigsaw puzzle; the master take is more focused but less adventurous. “European Echoes”, from the first volume, gets a little tedious. The intentionally banal theme involves a diatonic mode resolving via major sevenths to two targets, with every note sounding on the 1-2-3 downbeats. The improvising breaks up the monotony quite a bit, but Coleman nags in his solos, never really getting anywhere.

The extended free ballads are something new to the Ornette oeuvre. “Dawn” is a pained poem of swelling alto notes and microtonal inflections; “Morning Song” is more distanced yet still full of raw emotion. Plenty of detail swims in both, and Ornette’s wrenching delivery takes some getting used to. (“Morning Song” gets two takes on Volume 2, of which the master is clearly better.) Another new facet is the entry-level trumpet and violin that Ornette dispatches in the driving “Snowflakes and Sunshine” of Volume 2. He alternates short improvs on either instrument as Izenson and Moffett churn below. If nothing else, this piece has a lot of energy.

Not every track is outstanding, but the music overall has as strong an impact as anything else under Coleman’s name, in my experience. It’s a mystery why these two volumes weren’t reissued as one complete set, as Blue Note did with Rollins’ Vanguard RVG. The great recording plants us right behind Moffett’s kit, with the bass off to the side and Ornette in center. Anyway, for such gems as “Faces and Places”, “Dawn”, and the sprinkled “Doughnuts”, these discs represent a peak in the Coleman catalog.

Skies of America
Apr. 1972 / Columbia

This is not jazz, and Ornette only plays on a fraction of it, but as his first recorded symphonic work, it’s fairly significant. David Measham conducts the London orchestra through Coleman’s “harmolodic” score, which makes much use of parallel movement, like stacked thirds, fifths, seconds, etcetera, leading to an ambiguous harmonic fabric. The polytonal sound is an incidental byproduct of Coleman assigning the same written notes to different clefs; therefore, when transposed to all the different instruments (mainly strings), the harmonies are strange and unsettled. This may be why so many reviews of this album talk about how jarring or dissonant it is, which I found to be an erroneous call. Yes, there are some very dissonant moments, but the majority of the score is quite evocative, drifting into the spacy beauty that parallel lines can provide - think Bartok’s scoring for orchestral strings. Those who demand traditional progressions will be put off, but those who enjoy polytonal sonorities may find it a captivating work.

“Skies” as originally scored couldn’t fit onto a standard LP, so this CD reissue maintains the reduced version as it had to appear at the time. The two halves are sequenced into “songs,” some brief, some a little longer. Strings dominate, propelled by two percussionists (tympani and trapset). The first half of the work mixes mysterious soundscapes with brief schoolyard tunes (“The Good Life”, “Holiday For Heroes”). In the narrative sense, this establishes a perspective between eternal physics and daily earthbound concerns: business, ceremony, life and death. Ornette delays his entrance until the last track of the first half (“Artist in America”), where his alto appears suddenly.

The second half is indeed jarring in places, full of close intervals and a frenzied rhythm or two. The music connotes conflict and uncertainty (“Foreigner in a Free Land”) and Coleman plays a lot more in this stretch. His soliloquy in “White House” is probably his most valuable contribution as a soloist; elsewhere, his alto sax pitch is way off the fixed pitch of the orchestra, and the result is a hideous, microtonal dissonance. These moments are brief, though, and gradually the second half returns to the evocative soundscapes that opened the first. The closing “Sunday in America” is absolutely gorgeous, with strings soon joined by the ghost of a parade band. This dreamlike piece suggests a symbiosis between the eternal skies above and the bustle of life below. Or perhaps I’m just a sucker for these particular voicings that give Skies of America its emotional aura. In any case, it’s not the place to go to hear Ornette play, or for any free jazz kick whatsoever, but it’s creative on its own terms.

With Pat Metheny: Song X: Twentieth Anniversary
Dec. 1985 / Geffen

The pastoral consonance of guitarist Pat Metheny’s Group recordings only told part of his musical story; albums like 1983’s Rejoicing hinted at his extensive jazz background, part of which involved a digestion of Ornette’s music. So their collaboration was inevitable, or at least not surprising. (Except for Pat’s pop jazz fans who ran in fear from this album, and still do.) Coleman wrote the tunes, Metheny handled production duties, and they found the right rhythm section: Charlie Haden on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums (how cool to have him finally play with Ornette), and Denardo Coleman on electric Simmons pads. The original Song X crashed into the middle of the decade and reminded everyone of jazz’s dangerous properties.

So what’s new about the 2005 edition? Pat confesses in the liner essay that the song choices and mixes were rushed when the album was first produced. Thus six short, excellent bonus cuts are appended to the beginning of the program, and everything is remixed with a better sound than the original CD. Also, the sax-synth sample that Pat had triggered with his guitar on a few tracks has been minimized. It’s odd that he would have used a fake sax sound on top of his usual guitar tone in the first place, what with having a sax player in the same room - Ornette Coleman, no less - but whatever. This isn’t just an expanded, remastered edition; it IS Song X.

The album might be summed up as a constant surge of melody and rhythm, with such highlights as the perky “Police People”, the slithery bop of “Word from Bird”, the puckish “Mob Job”, the relentless assault of “Endagered Species”, and on through the lyrical themes of “Katherine Gray” and “The Veil”, etcetera. Metheny’s playing is extraordinary, leaning into idiomatic techniques - as in the startling arpeggio permutations of “Trigonometry” - and applying them in an advanced, free-flowing way. His effect work includes the data-stream guitar of “Compute”, and he wails on the trusty Roland GR300 on “Species”. Of the drummers, DeJohnette’s telltale ride cymbal and toms dominate, while Denardo decorates with electronic percussion. Haden is buried underneath, yet he still gives Ornette’s music the same feel he always did. Dig the “Una Muy Bonita” double-stop bass vamp of “Police People”, or the bowed harmonic effects that poke their head above the din in “Endangered Species”. Notice how Haden often allots two (or more) beats per note when at a fast walk. Thus the musical content of the bass line moves at half the pace of the actual pulse, which provides a springboard or transitory pedal effect.

Ornette, funnily enough, sounds the most “normal” a lot of the time, but that’s relative to the explosive drums and the guitarist’s newfound freedom. In other words, this album reveals more about Metheny than Ornette. “Mob Job” (with Metheny on acoustic) is one of the few places where Coleman’s phrases really stand out, and the two principals have a lot of exchanges throughout the album, like on “Song X Duo” and “The Good Life”. The most extreme contrast between the two comes in “Video Games”, where Pat and Denardo take the first part as a warped electronic duet, then Coleman, Haden, and DeJohnette rush in with an acoustic response. Both parties meet for a manic climax.

I think Song X is an example of how Coleman’s influence is as important as his actual playing, because Ornette inspired its “harmolodic” style, yet Metheny and DeJohnette are the ones who really grab the listener’s collar. It is also my favorite album of Metheny’s playing. Most of Pat’s own albums are too sappy and folksy to my ears but there’s no question he’s a world class guitarist when he gets in a dangerous zone. (Or even playing standards or bebop, because he can really scoot through bop changes in an original way.)

Tone Dialing
1995 / Harmolodic-Verve

Don Cherry had a ‘90s album called Multi-Kulti, while Ornette and his rejuvenated Prime Time band here take multicultural alchemy to its limits. Tone Dialing is full of sunny melodies, crosscurrent rhythms, and writhing arrangements that unite several global influences. The band includes two guitars, one keyboard, two basses, Denardo Coleman on drums and electric percussives, and Badal Roy on tabla. Ornette rides high over everything, and he takes almost a Miles approach in that he comments sparingly on the burbling activity of the group. “La Capella” and “Family Reunion” mix and match a lot of flavorful components into a panethnic sound that is not strictly Latin or funk or African highlife or whatever else. (You can thank the tabla and the occasional whirring synthesizer for confounding any genre rules.) “Street Blues” drowns a hip-hop rhythmic influence in the band’s assorted layers to fun effect. Free freakouts like “OAC” and the thrashing title track are short and effective, while the ballad “When Will I See You Again” eases off on the party atmosphere. I’m fascinated by the conglomeration of funk bass, percussion, rock guitar, and dark keyboard chords that make up “Local Instinct”, and also by the rousing “Ying Yang” theme.

At its cheapest, the album contains two weak pastiches. The deconstructed “Bach Prelude” is silly yet harmless, but the drum machines and raps that infest “Search for Life” are godawful with no redemption. Why Ornette wanted to throw a bone to rap, and why the lyrics (dispatched by a couple of female rappers) are so embrassingly banal, are total mysteries. In fact, after the catchy opener “Street Blues”, the program bogs down with the rap and the Bach and the dull chaos collage “Sound is Everywhere”. It’s only with the peppy “Miguel’s Fortune” that the album sets a truer course and it sails fine from there on out.

The mix sometimes collapses the entire band into one monophonic entity, and at other times, the instruments are spread wide in the stereo field (“When Will I See You Again”), or individuals are boosted when featured. There are so many little details to be heard; not all of them are of major importance, but the record teems with life, whether you want to listen closely or not. Tone Dialing isn’t for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anyone who liked Ornette’s previous Prime Time recordings.

Sound Museum: Three Women
Sound Museum: Hidden Man
1996 / Harmolodic-Verve

You gotta love it: two separate discs of the same material, in differing takes by the same quartet. Basically, the albums (14 tracks each) are alternate versions of each other. Ornette may have wanted to demonstrate once and for all the variations and freedom inherent in his musical methods, and he leaves us with a puzzler as well - which one’s the “real” album, which one’s the alternate? Both are both, poncho.

The music is every bit as fresh as his seminal Atlantics of the late ‘50s, and there’s a bit of an offspring theme in the personnel. Ornette’s son Denardo plays drums, and former drummer Charles Moffett’s son Charnett plays bass. On piano (yes, piano) is Geri Allen. This quartet is as musically versatile as any band Ornette had led before, and they develop that heritage and language into a modern dialect. Denardo manipulates the beat with skill, while Charnett updates the Izenson school of unpredictable plucking and bowing. Allen handles herself very well, given the rhythm battery’s restlessness and the chord-less nature of Coleman’s free music.

The material dates back to the ‘60s and continues through several recent Prime Time themes. The pieces are all in the 3-4 minute range, dashed off like blitz chess: sudden gambits and payoff fianchettos. Both discs open with “Sound Museum”, where an alto fanfare leads to a middle section for trumpet (Hidden Man) or violin (Three Women) noodling above the rhythm trio’s space boogie. The urban panic of “City Living” and “Stopwatch” focuses the band’s energies into quick bursts; “Picolo Pesos” shuffles with percussive verve; “European Echoes” is deconstructed into ambiguous matter far superior to the Golden Circle takes from way back when. The rhythm section is continually inventive, and Ornette unifies the music with quite a few memorable statements, such as the syncopated solo peak of “What Reason” (one of the versions, at least), or his burning freebop in “Macho Woman”. At this time in his life, he’s erased the hazardous notes from his happy go lucky improvising, leaving only a glowing phraseology.

Comparing the twins of several tracks is interesting. They differ in solos, obviously, and also in structure, like the way “Women of the Veil” starts with isolated notes in one version and dives right into group angst in the other. Or the compactness of Hidden Man’s “Biosphere” versus the bass intro and solo exchanges of Three Women’s version. Denardo swings “Mob Job” in one take (supporting a great Allen solo) and subverts it with stuttering snare in the other. You can go through every track noting the differing elements, or you can just appreciate either album as its own set. Exclusive to Hidden Man is the gospel deconstruction “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, while Three Women contains the overdone vocal duet “Don’t You Know By Now”, which might test how quickly one can hit the fast forward button.

This is exactly how Coleman’s music should sound near the end of the century. He’s now the tribal elder, still with the crazy gleam in his eye. Yes, yes, these are fun albums. Hear one, hear both.

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